The Incredible Chinese Elm Tree at Elizabeth Farm

the large leaning grey brown trunk of the very old Elm tree at Elizabeth Farm

The Chinese Elm tree (Ulmus parvifolia) at Elizabeth Farm has a major lean to the North West and here you can see the support props which were installed to help ensure the tree does not tip over. Photo Steve Halliday © Sydney Living Museums

At Sydney Living Museums our gardens are living links with the past. This is especially true of the venerable Chinese Elm Tree at Elizabeth Farm.

The Chinese Elm Tree (Ulmus parvifolia) is believed to have been planted around 1850. It may have been planted by Elizabeth Macarthur or one of her sons. It is one of the oldest mid- century European plantings in Australia and is included in the statement of significance for Elizabeth Farm in the NSW Heritage Register. The Elm is a great example of the connections between Sydney and Asia in the nineteenth century. It is typically quite a tough species, able to withstand many difficult conditions. It thrived when first introduced to Australia due to our year-round exposure to the sun. Chinese Elms are often seen in colonial-era gardens across the county of Cumberland and are a signature species.

Incredibly, this tree has survived 150 years at Elizabeth Farm, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In the 1970s the tree began to lean, a common habit of old Chinese Elms. By the 1980s it was pronounced enough to warrant concern that the tree might collapse under its own weight. Arborist Ralph Clark, then one of Australia’s leading experts on how to care for old trees, proposed timber props to support its long low-hanging branches based on common English practice. Accompanying this was extensive canopy reduction to reduce the weight bearing on the tree. We believe it may have been the first time a tree was propped up in this way in Australia. Over the years the tree has developed longitudinal spiral fractures that have healed over time, testament to its ability to repair itself. Spiral fractures are often a feature of long horizontally trending branches, and is caused by a twisting motion under wind loads. It can also be seen in figs, oaks, crepe myrtles and taxodiums.

In 2017 heavy rainfall & fierce winds caused a spiral fracture in the limb of the tree to split and open, resting one of the heavy branches on the ground. Thankfully, there was no sign of uprooting or any other damage. The installation of new steel support props accompanied by selective pruning and end weight reduction has saved the tree from further movement and damage. With careful management the tree should continue to enjoy a strong healthy life for many years to come. Read more about the 2017 storm damage here.



Tree in front of house with driveway in foreground.

Full shot of the Chinese Elm from the carriage loop. The mulch pile beside the elm is where the large Kurrajong tree stood, which was unfortunately fatally damaged in a large storm a few months ago. The Kurrajong may have attributed to the elm's lean as it reached for light.

Photo Steven Halliday © Sydney Living Museums

The Chinese Elm at Elizabeth farm has metal and timber props helping to hold up the tree.

The props are shown clearer here. The steel props are a recent addition which replaced the existing timber props as the steel is less flexible and less likely to break under the heavy strain of the tree. The outer timber props remained as they did not have as big of a weight load on them.

Photo Steven Halliday © Sydney Living Museums

Tree in front of house with lawn in foreground.

The elm tree during winter when it has lost most of its leaves, unfortunately most of the storm damage usually happens in Autumn when the tree is heaviest with seed pods. The bamboo fence now encloses the entire tree to ensure the safety of the our visitors.

Photo Steven Halliday © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Cameron Allan, A Visitor Interpretation Officer at Sydney Living Museums in his uniform which is a white business shirt and he is in front of a book display at the Vaucluse House Shop

Cameron Allan

Visitor & Interpretation Officer

Cameron is a Visitor & Interpretation Officer at Sydney Living Museums.